I have no doubt that The Artist will prevail in this year’s Best Picture race at the Academy Awards. None whatsoever. Michel Hazanavicius’s tribute to the distantly bygone glamor of silent picture storytelling by making his own black-and-white, almost entirely silent film of his own is rife with charm and ingenuity. While the story’s focus on a Hollywood star whose prominence fades when talkies arrive allows Hazanavicius to slyly ape the tropes and techniques of those cinematic relics in the films within the film (I’m especially fond of the tragedy that befalls a hero when he finds himself in quicksand), the writer-director is largely sifting his conceit through a very modern sensibility. The best parts of The Artist are those that play cheeky tricks with the predominant lack of sound save the wall-to-wall music score by Ludovic Bource, whose also assuredly got his own Oscar in the offing, earned for sheer volume alone. It’s perfectly marvelous that an early scene hinges on a round of applause that can’t be heard but can instead be seen in the reactions of the characters onscreen. And the first sequence which employs sound effects is a little masterwork of quietly inventive comedy worthy that strikes me as the sort of thing the Coen brothers would have conceived had they taken a crack at a silent film. That’s as about as high of a compliment as I can pay.
Just as I think the film will prove irresistible to a significant number of Academy members, I understand why some were so effusive in their praise when The Artist tiptoed gracefully through the festival circuit. Amidst films that were undoubtedly dominated by dour assessments of the human conditions, the blithe spirit of The Artist would be as welcome as a sweet breeze on a sweltering day. Removed from that context, I’m afraid the film starts to look a bit more slight. For one thing, the story is a bland mash-up of the handful of similarly structured yo-yo sagas of Hollywood life that are about as old as the talkies themselves.
Jean Dujardin plays a matinee idol whose good fortune is smashed to bits when the movies start to speak, and his downward trajectory has its opposite in the rise to stardom of an ingenue whose first flash of fame came when she bumped into him outside of a lavish premiere and gamely played along with his genial mugging. There’s nary a moment of these intertwined stories that isn’t wholly predictable. That’s not necessarily a huge problem in and of itself; a film with enough style and grace can overcome an overly familiar structure, even turn it into an advantage as the added grounding that gives the plot allows from greater flights of fancy in the telling. The Artist achieves this, but not quite often enough to prevent significant stretches in the middle from sagging.
Overall, it’s a wholly admirable film, largely achieving a markedly audacious goal with eager, agreeable panache. Dujardin is a mighty contributor to this, building a performance that begins with the overly pronounced facial expressions of the silent film era but progresses into something more subtle and moving as he evolves from pushing emotions to letting them settle into his face. It’s an acting turn that could have been little more than a prolonged stunt–a problem Bérénice Bejo skirts direly close to at times as the bright ingenue–but Dujardin counterbalances the grand goofiness of it with the proper dose of gravity. There’s indeed artistry on display throughout the film, but none more impressive than that of Dujardin. Hazanavicius might bring considerable skill and creativity to The Artist, but it’s Dujardin who gives it a soul.